Photo | Jenna Liao

The importance of community, social activism, and knowing one’s worth

The theme of this year’s TEDxUofT was “Open,” which speaks to the conference’s efforts to open up the stage to the diverse voices at UofT and in Toronto. Despite the variety of topics, the idea of improvement linked the talks together. The presenters spoke about the challenges that preoccupy them: ranging from academic problems, to social concerns, to personal obstacles. Their speeches ultimately focused on the process of confronting these issues.

The conference took advantage of the expertise demonstrated by members of the UofT faculty. Audiences heard from professors currently researching artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and cancer-killing molecules. The technical nature of their subjects did not pose any issues of accessibility. The complexity did not deter from how exciting it is that these ideas are not all that futuristic, and that such innovative research is being done so close to home.

Other speakers proposed different ways of thinking about social issues. Cristina d’Amico’s analysis of the affordable housing crisis borrowed methods from the humanities to think imaginatively about the idea of housing as a right, and not simply a commodity. She examined the feasibility of tiny homes as a solution to high real-estate prices, but brought up the contradiction that the anti-consumerist language surrounding tiny homes is both a marketing technique, and restricted to a market-based framework—therefore emphasizing the need “to think bigger than tiny homes.”

I appreciated that all of these talks were open-ended, inviting us to think about these proposals and to contribute our own ideas to the discussion. A wonderful aspect of attending this conference was the opportunity to participate in a dialogue right away by engaging with the speakers individually. In this sense, the conference felt quite personal.

Other presenters shared personal stories. Tobi Ogude performed a spoken word poem, and spoke about the need to bridge the gap between Toronto’s urban arts community and the city; A city whose identity is shaped by this urban arts culture, but misrepresents it, and fails to give it credit for its influence on the global perception of Toronto. He referred to an incident of police brutality at Blank Canvas Gallery, which led to the closure of the community-run space. He went on to highlight his community’s resilience in finding a new space for art and self-expression, in order to counteract systemic violence with a culture of “love, peace, and mutual respect” around art.

Rajiv Surendra, best known for playing Kevin G. in the cult-classic Mean Girls, told another inspiring story about overcoming systemic and personal obstacles, detailing his obsession with landing the lead role in the movie Life of Pi, which presented an opportunity to finally go beyond the roles he’d been typecast as in the past: terrorist, math geek. He invested himself in embodying Pi’s perspective by living in Pondicherry, and learning to swim. In the end, however, he did not get the part. He concluded his speech by telling us that the possibility of failure should not prevent us from trying. Although he did not land the role, his dedication allowed him to collect beautiful experiences, and a good story for his new memoir The Elephants in my Backyard.

Tobi Ogude is currently an undergraduate at UofT, and Rajiv Surendra graduated a few years ago. Though this brought on insecurities about my own accomplishments, seeing young people and fellow students on the stage was also reassuring. This showed me that you don’t need to have founded a company, accumulated multiple degrees, or landed your dream job before you give a TED talk. There is validity in your own experience and your own story, no matter where you are in life.